Eddie Pensier writes:
She done him so, so wrong.
L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut is a scandalous novella written in 1731 by Abbé Antoine François Prévost. Frequently banned and censored, it’s the story of a bourgeois young man, the Chevalier des Grieux, who falls for a teenaged girl he spots at a carriage depot. Overcome by passionate love, he convinces her to run away with him on the spot. His love (songs to the contrary) is not enough to sustain them, though, and before long she’s seeking out wealthier lovers to sustain her in the luxury she has discovered she can’t live without.
Prévost’s book isn’t long, and it can be downloaded in its entirety at Project Gutenberg. Before being published on its own, it was part of a longer multi-volume autobiographical work, somewhat dubiously titled Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité.
Not long after she leaves him (for the first time) she shows up in Paris, decked out in her finest. In Jules Massenet’s 1884 opera version of the story, she takes the opportunity to indulge in the operatic trope known as the Look-At-How-Hot-I-Am-And-How-I-Make-All-Men-Want-Me aria. (See also Musetta in La Bohème.) Here’s one of the great Manons, Beverly Sills (RIP), in a lackadaisically subtitled New York City Opera (also RIP) performance from 1977.
But guess what: she’s sorry. She hears that des Grieux, grief-struck by her perfidy, has decided to enter a seminary. Manon, the hussy, tracks him down and seduces him. Again. IN THE CHURCH. The ensuing duet is the apotheosis of swooning, lush French Romantic opéra comique. I love how Anna Netrebko, in this Vienna State Opera clip from 2007, applies a little pre-seduction lipstick for good measure: it’s a nice touch that indicates her motives with crystal clarity. Notice also her inventive and acrobatic use of the sofa (ahem). There aren’t any subtitles in this video, but you probably don’t need them: it’s obvious what’s going on. Roberto Alagna as des Grieux doesn’t stand a chance.
Needless to say, all this carousing catches up to the pair, and Manon is arrested as a prostitute and exiled to Louisiana.* des Grieux bribes a soldier to let him accompany her on the ship, but it’s for naught. He wanders around Louisiana trying to find his consumptive girfriend food and shelter, leaving Puccini’s 1893 version of Manon to indulge herself in another operatic cliché: the Poor-Pitiful-Me-Aria (titled “Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata”, natch). It’s amazing though, and I get caught up in it despite my better judgment saying THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT, BITCH. Besides, Karita Mattila can do no wrong.
British choreographer Kenneth Macmillan created a ballet version of Manon, with a pastiche of Massenet songs and snippets–but oddly, almost nothing from the opera. The final scene of Manon’s death is heartbreaking, not to mention technically astounding…especially with Sylvie Guillem dancing the title role.
And finally here is a sure-to-be-controversial scene from Jean Aurel’s Manon 70, with Catherine Deneuve in a bathtub. Is she being raped? It appears so. She struggles, but seems to emerge from the ordeal fairly unruffled, if not exactly sanguine. I’ve only seen the movie in bits, so I’m not sure how faithful it is to the book or any other version. Still, Catherine Deneuve in a bathtub.
*You might hear some chortling in certain quarters about the parochialism and ignorance inherent in describing the “deserts of Louisiana”. And certainly the current U.S. state of Louisiana is not known for its dry climate. But what the chortlers fail to remember is that in the 1730s, the word “Louisiana” referred to not the state that goes by that name today, but a vast swath of the North American continent marked at its western end by the Rocky Mountains, and including parts of Texas and Oklahoma. So while it may not be technically accurate, it was a lot closer to desert than most Europeans had ever seen.
- More Manon excerpts in my tribute to the late Julius Rudel.